Sunday, November 1, 2015

Math & Science: E=mc2

Big Audio Dynamite: E=mc2

Among the things that I never did at Princeton, either as a student or alumnus are:

-I never went by the house where Albert Einstein lived from 1933-1955;

-I never visited the Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein worked (his Institute office was initially on the Princeton campus and he worked in the physics lab, which is now part of the campus student center, but he never was a member of the Princeton faculty, although, according to University sources, he “often helped students with math problems”);

-I never took a math class or any serious science class (I satisfied my distribution requirement through a Psychology lab and credit for a good AP Chem score from high school, which annoyed my freshman advisor, a chemistry professor, who urged me to take Organic Chemistry, an offer I declined. I also took an intro Astrophysics class which was designed for non-scientists and was an excuse to sit in a dark room and look at pictures of stars).

Math and Science are just not what I was interested in studying, and although, at least at the high school level, I could do reasonably well (I survived AP Calculus BC, but when my kids took calculus, I remembered exactly zero about it—and I still count on my fingers). To this day, I’m curious about science, but I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted to spend my time in college on.

So I’m not going to even attempt to explain what E=mc2, which is also the title of a song by Big Audio Dynamite, means. However, if any of my surprisingly large number of friends and classmates who are, in fact, physicists want to weigh in in the comments, feel free.  Which is not to say that I don’t know that it stands for--Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. But knowing that is far from knowing what it “means.” Instead, I will talk about the song a bit, a job for which I’m somewhat more qualified.

Big Audio Dynamite was formed by Mick Jones with film director Don Letts in 1984 after Jones was tossed from The Clash. The band’s first album, This Is Big Audio Dynamite, fused The Clash’s post-Sandinista!/Combat Rock punk with dance and rap, and liberally used samples from other songs and movies, something which was pretty audacious in that era. It’s actually a pretty great record.

“E=mc2” is one of the real standout tracks. According to Wikipedia, it was the first song to be created all from samples, which either was a great achievement (particularly in the analog age), or was the first step toward the destruction of music. The song is inspired by the films of Nicolas Roeg, particularly Performance and Insignificance (in which Einstein is a character). Roeg’s films are best known for unusual directorial techniques and non-linear narratives that rearrange the time sequence, requiring the viewer to reassemble the pieces. Which, maybe, relates to the whole relativity thing (although maybe not—remember, I’m not a scientist and I’m not a film critic).

Interspersed in the song, whose lyrics reference those, and other, Roeg films, are quotes from Performance, including one snippet featuring Mick Jagger, who starred in the movie. Controversial on its release in 1970, due to its graphic sexual content, drug use and violence, it became a cult classic, and an influence on music videos and films, notably by Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie (which shouldn’t be a surprise, based on the description).

In addition to being a clever, catchy tune, it was a success, hitting 11 on the UK singles chart and 37 on the US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart. Einstein, a violinist who loved Mozart and Bach, and whose musical tastes were described as “conservative,” probably would not have liked it.

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